It was Winston Churchill who once said, “All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes. I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught”. People often think he meant this in relation to the ultimately disastrous (although it is often forgotten that it was almost successful) Dardenelles Campaign in the First World War, for which he was responsible. It wasn’t, what he said about that was “'Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it”, which perhaps makes a similar point.
One great way to illustrate this is to play a game of ‘Simon Says’, in an assembly, parade service address or with any group willing to have some fun. You know the game, if you say ‘Simon says’, the children should do what you tell them, but if you don’t say ‘Simon says’, they must ignore whatever you tell them to do. Examples could include standing up, sitting down, running on the spot, stretching up high and curling into a ball, not to mention fold your arms, touch your nose, put your hands together, blink, close your eyes and open your eyes etc.
But if I then ask, ‘Who thought that the game was fun?’, and then
‘Why was it fun?’, answers always suggest that the game was fun because it wasn’t as easy as the children had thought, and it made them listen and think. It wouldn’t have been as much fun if everyone had got it right every time. What would it have been like if everyone had followed every instruction perfectly? Indeed if everyone was perfect at Simon Says, there wouldn’t really be a game. Instead, it would just be a lot of people doing exactly the same thing at the same time!
The way we live life is just the same game, it is our imperfections that make life fun and interesting. Life would not be as interesting if everyone was the same and if everybody was perfect. None of us are perfect, so we can always improve, learn and get better. Even if we find it difficult, learning and improving helps us to grow.
In fact if we really want to become good at Simon Says, we can practise, and the same is true of work, sport, art or anything else in life. Sometimes, we get things wrong in a game or in life: we do things that we shouldn’t or we are selfish. However, we can practise at being better people, just as we can practise a game. Sometimes, we may need some help but when things go wrong, we shouldn’t be too hard on others, or, which is sometimes harder, on ourselves. We can always try to do better next time.
Some people think that believing in God should make us perfect, or at least the will to try to be perfect human beings who never do anything wrong, never make mistakes, never doubt. Yet others think that if we go to Church and are less than perfect then we are in some way hypocritical. This school of thought actually took root for a while in parts of the early Church before later being widely discarded as the Pelagian Heresy (named after the British monk Pelagius who thought that being made in God’s image, humans were essentially perfect and so it was the duty of Christians to effectively defend themselves, block out, all the evil and sin which all came from outside of them in the world around them).
Against this argued St Augustine, who taught what I think we all know to be true of ourselves: that we are not perfect but a mixture of good and bad impulses and intentions. Augustine called this ‘original sin’ or ‘fallen humanity’, as expressed poetically in the story of Adam and Eve. But whatever terminology we use I think we know instinctively that a happy and fulfilling life would not be one which tried to hide from all that is bad in the world and was concerned only in preserving some pure perfection from being polluted or in some way corrupted by the world. Rather if we accept that we are all part of the world, that we are not and never will be perfect, then we can find the freedom to learn from mistakes, to take risks and face challenges which will not always work, but might sometimes.
So if you have made a New Year’s resolution and have in some way fulfilled it less than 100% successfully, think what St Augustine might say, ‘you’re not that bad, have another go’! Or perhaps more eloquently, “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” George Bernard Shaw
Your friend and vicar